The Narrow Valley
MOUSE COULDN’T BELIEVE that Onyx was here. After so long apart, he’d simply assumed that his miryhl had escaped with the rest of the Riders and his friends. He’d never imagined that any miryhl had chosen to stay behind. He hadn’t even considered it. But standing in the gathering gloom of the narrow valley, he couldn’t deny that he was glad. So very glad that his miryhl was here, alive and looking better than ever.
“They’ve changed so much,” Silveo murmured, echoing Mouse’s thoughts as the pair of them sat beneath the hastily rigged shelter they’d raised over Greig’s slumbering form. With a fire crackling and Nightriver positioned to block the worst of the wind, it was almost cosy, but a glance at the sky showed that the weather was closing in and would soon take a turn for the worse.
Still, there was little that could be done until Imaino and Thunder returned with the majority of their companions, who had set out earlier with the nakhounds to do some hunting. The big miryhl had been reluctant to leave her Rider at first, but Haelle – with help from Mouse and Nightriver – had given her a long list of herbs to track down, and the task had seemed to soothe her. Well, that and leaving a squad of six sturdy miryhls, along with Onyx and Silveo’s Vehro, to keep watch in case Mercata came back. However, it was only when Nightriver promised to keep a close watch over them all that Thunder had fully relaxed. Unlike the humans, the miryhls had taken instantly to the dragon and showed no fear in his presence.
Except for Onyx, who eyed the dragon jealously whenever he spoke to Mouse. Even now, when Nightriver appeared to be sleeping, the little miryhl kept himself between the dragon and his Rider, reasserting his claim. It both amused Mouse and reassured him, because Silveo was right, the miryhls had changed.
“They had as hard a winter as we did,” he said, rubbing his hands together as the chilly wind snuck into their shelter. “I’m sure we seem just as different to them.”
“Hmm,” Silveo agreed, huddling into his cloak. “I can’t get over how much bulkier they all are.”
Mouse nodded, staring at Onyx again. In truth, he could hardly take his eyes off his miryhl. Small, patient and gentle, Onyx had always been the perfect partner for him, especially when he’d been bouncing around with too much nervous energy in the days before his fall and subsequent injury. Onyx’s unflappable calm had never been shaken by any of Mouse’s clumsy antics and he’d never snapped at his Rider for getting things wrong. It was hard to tell how calm the miryhl still was beneath his displays of jealousy, but his body had certainly changed. Still small compared to most miryhls, Onyx was – as Silveo had said – bulkier. The muscles of his chest and wings were more sharply defined, his neck was thicker too. He wasn’t fat, far from it, but he looked fit, powerful. Healthy. Even his feathers seemed glossier than they ever had before.
No matter what hardships his miryhl had faced over the winter, Mouse couldn’t deny that ultimately it had been good for him.
He only wished the same could be said for himself.
You have grown, my Mouse, Nightriver rumbled inside his mind, always taking care of him, even during sleep. You are still a worthy partner.
Mouse blinked, astonished. He hadn’t even realised he’d been thinking along those lines. But looking at Onyx again and seeing how much the miryhl had grown… No, he didn’t feel worthy of the miryhl Onyx had become. Then again, he’d never felt worthy of having a miryhl in the first place.
“I wonder how we compare?” Silveo said, once again echoing Mouse’s thoughts. “Somehow I doubt we come out quite as well.”
Tearing his eyes away from his miryhl, Mouse eyed his friend thoughtfully. Having been together for the whole winter, he hadn’t noticed any particular changes in Silveo, but that was because he’d been changing right alongside him. Thinking back to the tall, silver-haired lad he’d worked with during the siege, Mouse could see those changes now. Still tall and silver-haired, the already lean Silveo was even leaner these days. His face was made up of stark angles and a faint scruff of beard growth that was only really visible in direct sunlight. His limbs were wiry with muscle and his hands rough from the weather and manual work. He looked older, harder, tougher, but when he smiled he was still the same old Silveo he’d always been.
“You don’t look so bad,” Mouse assured his friend. “You look like a Rider.”
Silveo’s lips quirked up, not entirely humorously. “I wish I felt more like one. Maegla, Mouse, you have no idea how glad I am you’re here.”
They both glanced over their shoulders at where Greig had been laid beside the fire. Haelle sat watchfully beside him, her hand resting on his bare shoulder, waiting for the fever to set in. It had been a rough ride through the darkness, clinging to Nightriver’s slippery back, holding on as tight as possible, afraid at any moment that Haelle’s grip around his waist would break and she’d been lost in the darkness.
Cold and uncomfortable, often hair-raising in the steep ascents and even worse descents as the dragon scrambled up and down the mountainside, it was a journey Mouse would be happy never to make again. Not least because it left him sore and aching. He couldn’t imagine how Haelle was feeling, yet she had never complained. Not once. Not even by a squeak or a sigh. She endured, which meant Mouse could do no less.
And now she watched over Greig with her heart in her eyes.
Catching a gleam of green between Nightriver’s lowered eyelids, Mouse smiled. “I’m glad to be here too, my friend. For all our sakes.”
Now if only he could find somewhere better for Greig to rest and stock up on his store of herbs, Mouse might even feel confident that he could bring his friend through the worst that was yet to come. Because it would surely get worse. Already the area around his stitches was turning red. He dreaded to think what kind of state a feral miryhl’s claws would be in after so long in the wild, and what kind of dirt and worse might have already got inside Greig’s wound. It wasn’t a case of if an infection and fever set in but when.
“Here it comes,” Silveo said, breaking through Mouse’s thoughts just as the first rain hit the top of their shelter.
Grimacing, Mouse looked up at the grey curtains sweeping up the valley towards him. Along with a line of dark miryhls materialising out of the murk. “And here come our friends.” He stood up, moving aside to let Thunder and her companions land.
Except Thunder didn’t slow down as she approached. Instead the large dark shadow sped up, talons swinging forward at the last moment.
He didn’t see what happened next as Silveo tackled him to the ground and the shelter was ripped from above their heads.
“Not friends,” Silveo growled. “Enemy on the wing! Riders! Riders take flight!”
Having been lulled into slumber by the fire and dull weather, the sentry miryhls jolted awake. Onyx was the first into the sky, screaming a challenge as he raced after the three miryhls carrying their shelter away over the trees.
Vehro was next, barely leaving the ground before he flipped onto his back, catching Mercata’s talons in his as the black female struck. Shrieking, the miryhl pair hit the mud, tumbling and rolling over Mouse and Silveo as they wrestled to free themselves from each other.
Cursing, Mouse dragged himself out from beneath his friend, checking that Silveo was all right – a little bruised and winded, but otherwise whole. He pulled his tall friend to his feet and turned to assess the area.
Mercata shook herself free of Vehro’s talons and launched back into the sky, but Thunder’s guards were alert now and ready for her. Eagles collided overhead, screaming and shrieking, feathers fluttering to the ground. Confident that they could take care of the attack, Mouse ran to check on Greig. The shelter was gone and the fire was almost out, but he needn’t have worried. Haelle was crouched over the patient, keeping his back and stitches dry, while Nightriver hunched over her in his biggest and most intimidating form.
The dragon might not be able to hold back the wind or the rain, but any enemy miryhl foolish enough to get within reach of his tail or teeth was swiftly made to regret it.
Sliding on his knees through the mud, Mouse slipped beneath Nightriver’s spread front legs and stopped beside Haelle. “How are you?” he asked, seeing the tremble in her arms as she held herself up at an awkward angle, the remaining stump of her left leg too short to take any of her weight.
“Been better,” she grunted.
Nodding, he placed his hands next to hers and gently nudged her aside. “Let me.”
Her lips tightened and for a moment he thought she would refuse, then she sighed and sagged against him. “Thanks, Mouse. I didn’t want to fall on him. My arms aren’t strong enough.”
“Yet,” Mouse said, smiling at her over his shoulder. “But they will be.”
Using his back to support herself, she straightened up and settled back beside Greig with a determined nod. “I’ll ask Master Gedanon. He’ll know what to do.”
Considering how protective both Ihrans were of Haelle, Mouse had no doubt they’d be more than willing to teach her whatever she wanted to know. Even before the siege and her injury, Haelle had long been a favourite pupil of the taciturn, frequently grumpy, sword master and his friendlier cousin.
“I wish I knew what to do,” Silveo grumbled, crawling underneath Nightriver’s neck to join them. “Onyx managed to rescue our shelter cloth, but those blasted ferals have shredded it.”
“Has the fighting stopped?” Mouse peered beyond Nightriver’s elbow at where the rain was now pounding down. The ground was swiftly turning to sludge, which would soon soak into anything they lay Greig on. They would have to move him, soon.
“Thunder’s miryhls have driven Mercata’s away,” Silveo said, “but I think it was only a diversion anyway.”
“They got what they came for,” Haelle murmured grimly, as Onyx shuffled up to Nightriver’s side and placed the shredded shelter cloth in front of Mouse like an offering.
“I’m sorry.” The miryhl bowed his head. “I flew as fast as I could, but there were three and they ripped it before I reached them.”
“Not your fault, Mouse’s miryhl,” Nightriver rumbled, the sound vibrating against Mouse’s back where he was pressed against the dragon’s belly. “They had a plan.”
Onyx ruffled his feathers, clearly uncertain whether to be annoyed at being addressed by the dragon or mollified by being acknowledged as Mouse’s.
Hiding a smile, Mouse reached up and stroked his miryhl’s beak. “You did your best,” he soothed. “It was only a temporary measure anyway. It just means we need to move Greig sooner than planned.”
“But where?” Haelle asked, running a hand through her damp hair. “And how will we move him?”
“I will carry him,” Nightriver rumbled.
“And I will show you where.” Unnoticed in the murk and their worry, Thunder had returned, black and bedraggled from the rain. “Here, Riders, tack up your miryhls.” She shoved a pile of tangled leather towards Silveo before hopping backwards, allowing them to crawl out from beneath Nightriver’s belly.
“I can’t.” Looking stricken, Haelle remained in the mud beside Greig.
“Not yet, no,” Thunder purred, crouching down and nuzzling her Rider. “But Nightriver will carry you and I will lead you. One day, far away from here, when Aquila is ours again, we will have something made for both of us so we can fly together. But you are still my Rider, Haelle. Always and only.”
“Always and only,” Haelle echoed, resting her cheek against her miryhl’s and closing her eyes.
~ Next Chapter ~